Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Mad Men Season 5 finale: "The Phantom"

Ok, now I can say it: We just had an entire season of "Mad Men" in which Don was entirely faithful to his wife. Have the stars stopped in their courses?

Sure, we may be in for a relapse, judging from the very last shot of Don in the finale. But his unprecedented stretch of fidelity is still a fact of no small significance, and I'm only partly joking when I say that must be the reason I enjoyed this season so much. More precisely, I enjoyed the season because it showed all of its major players moving in new directions that still remained consistent with their essential characters.

As for the finale itself, as a stand-alone episode, I liked it. True, it didn't pack the same emotional punch as the preceding episodes, but it had some great moments that captured the gestalt of the season as a whole. It also had moments that encapsulated some of the season's weaknesses.

What I liked:

-Pete's final scene with Beth (aka Alexis Bledel aka Rory Gilmore). I have mixed feelings about the character of Beth (and Bledel's performance, though she was actually pretty good this week), and Pete's melancholy analysis of his own malaise wasn't really necessary for anyone who's been paying any attention to this show. Yet it felt poignant and unforced, unlike, say, Glen's "Everything turns to crap" speech from last week. The difference, I think, lies in the delivery; Vincent Kartheiser knows how to draw us into Pete's unhappiness. He may be a misguided creeper, but there's something heartbreaking about his transparent, hopeless desire to be the romantic hero that he's not and never will be.

-"And I'm the president of the Howdy Doody Circus Army!" Oh, Pete. Never change. But maybe learn to throw a counter-punch.

-The fleeting, tantalizing glimpses we got of post-SCDP Peggy, especially her run-in with Don at the movie theater - a lovely grace note to their relationship that, rather than ending, seems to be moving into a new phase. You may not be in Paris yet, Peggy, but you sure have come a long way, baby.

-The exquisitely jaded demeanor of Megan's maman, who's either an embittered dream-crusher or simply a hardened realist who knows the perils of indulging fantasies that don't match up with one's abilities. It's hard to tell which interpretation is correct, partly because we don't have a clear sense of whether Megan actually has any acting talent. Don's expression while watching her screening tape was way too enigmatic to give us any clues on that point. All we know is he saw something that made him want to help her after all.

-Sterling Cooper is flush, and moving on up - literally! Too bad its boost came at the expense of Joan's body and (symbolically, at least) Lane's life. I did love that shot of all the partners looking out the windows of their newly acquired floor.

-Roger being inappropriate as only Roger can be, from his phone-stalking of Marie at the Drapers' to his inviting her to trip with him, to his beatific state of solitary nudity. More, please.

-That long, gorgeous, faintly surreal tracking shot of Don walking from Megan's commercial shoot to the bar.

What I disliked:

-The implication - heavily underscored by the sight of Don lighting a cigarette and contemplating a come-on in a bar that could have been right out of season 1 - that he may be about to revert to his old ways. One of the intriguing, if not always pleasant, surprises of this season was watching Don behave as we'd never seen him behave before - as a devoted husband, emotionally dependent (sometimes unnervingly so) on his wife and detached from his work, rather than the other way around. To watch him go back to his old self would be extremely tiresome.

-Don's rotten tooth, redolent of Scotch and guilt. In the words of the snarky commenter from earlier in the season, "SYMBOLISM!1!1!1!" Too much, Mad Men. Too much.

-Joan's suggestion that she could have prevented Lane's suicide by sleeping with him. Come on, Joan: you're fab, but pity sex wouldn't have begun to solve that man's problems.

I'm conflicted on:

-The recurring "phantom" of Adam. Heavy-handed, yes, especially in conjunction with that rotting tooth. But undeniably haunting, and I'm not just punning.

-Megan's latest character (d)evolution. Backstabbing, whiney, *and* a sellout: not an attractive combo. But a convenient way to break her spell over Don, with an assist from that ridiculous "European" outfit she had to wear for the commercial. I can't say I'm particularly disappointed or elated by this latest development. Even after seeing so much of her this season, I still don't feel strongly one way or another about Megan. As an NPR critic astutely observed earlier this season (need to find link), the fundamental core of Megan's character has been hard to locate because from week to week she's been used to hammer home the "theme of the week" instead of being allowed to develop organically as a figure independent of Don's desires and projections. That seems unlikely to change in season 6, but we'll see.

All in all, it was a strong season that effectively conveyed the rapidly quickening cultural shifts of the late '60s and their impact on our aging ad men and women. And unlike the end of last season, it's left me wanting more. Bring on season 6!


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